A bit of light-heartedness for the new year: We’ve all made the mistake at some point or other of using a word that sounds like but is not the one we mean, sometimes with hilarious results. Language learners make them often: I’ve made these errors in Dutch recently, using ‘verkopen’ instead of ‘kopen’, which resulted in me announcing to a smooth salesman that I’d like to sell a vacuum cleaner. I bet he was thinking, ‘We’ll see about that. I’ll be doing the selling around here.’ And then when returning a hotel keycard to the receptionist I tried to say, ‘We’ve forgotten your card’ but instead said ‘We’ve eaten your card’, mixing up ‘vergeten’ with ‘gegeten’. A recent example I’ve heard from a Dutch speaker learning English was when he wanted to express his appreciation to his host for the lovely dinner and time they’d had together, and he said, ‘Thank you for your hostility.’
At least language learners are likely to be corrected and not make the same mistake again; but when people make these mistakes in their first language, they usually don’t realise the error and so continue to make it. People send me examples of malapropisms they hear or say themselves, such as ‘one foul swoop’ for ‘one fell swoop’, ‘hotter than Haiti’ for ‘hotter than Hades’; ‘nip thinks in the butt’ for ‘nip things in the bud’; and even ‘erotic fish’ for ‘exotic fish’. The humour in the meow cop game relies on the butt of the joke thinking the cop is using malapropisms.
There are some great ones from the TV show Kath and Kim, including Kim’s plea, ‘I want to be effluent, Mum!’ and Kath’s judgement about what kind of kitchen table (or is it marriage?) Kim should have: ‘Oh no, Kim, monogamy’s very old fashioned. You just want a veneer of monogamy. That’s all people care about these days.’
George W Bush is famous for them, including this pearler: ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.’ This example meets the criteria for a malapropism, which is that the word used by the speaker is a real word but not the one they meant to use, that it sounds like the word they meant, and that the result doesn’t make any sense. The title of this post is not strictly a malapropism in that you’re unlikely to hear anyone saying this as a genuine mistake. You can read here how the term malapropism comes from the character of Mrs Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals; she said things like ‘promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory’ and ‘He is the very pine-apple of politeness!’
As word meanings change, something that may have been a malapropism is no longer: for example, the word ‘fortuitous’ means ‘occurring by chance’, but because it sounds as if it’s related to ‘fortunate’, it has, since about the middle of last century, come to be used in the sense ‘occurring by good chance’. Because any fortuitous event can happen by good, bad or value-neutral chance, these two words do legitimately overlap in meaning at least some of the time. Fowler’s Modern Usage still prescribes the ‘chance’ meaning of ‘fortuitous’, but I think that battle to halt meaning shift is already lost.
Studies of malapropisms and other language errors can be used to find out how children develop language and which language centres of the brain have been damaged when people have strokes or accidents. That’s not to say that any instance of a malapropism constitutes brain damage – in a general setting people have just learned the wrong word from their social group, or misheard a phrase and repeated their mishearing.
This leads me to ask if speakers repeat these errors, even after they’ve been corrected. This article in Language Sciences by Arnold Zwicky from 1979 suggests they don’t, because they are convinced they already have the right word. A person will be looking through their mental dictionary for a word, but find the wrong one; when they utter that word, they accept it and store it as the correct item, so they continue to make the error. The fact that they couldn’t find the right word the first time means that the correct word was either stored incorrectly or incompletely. In Zwicky’s study, people were asked if they had intended to say what they had, and they were certain that they were right. That study was not longitudinal so it didn’t follow up to see if being corrected did change what people said. (I couldn’t find anything more current than this; not even recent abstracts behind paywalls seemed to answer this question exactly.)
I’ve heard people say often enough that so-and-so person always says such-and-such malapropism, so it seems as if it is a difficult thing to correct in a speaker’s mind. I once mixed up ‘superstitious’ and ‘suspicious’ and I’ve never trusted either of them since, always pausing now before I say one to make sure it’s right. If you know someone who has this kind of speech impeachment, be sure to collect them! They’ll thank you heavily for it.
Here’s a whole website devoted to them http://www.fun-with-words.com/malapropisms.html
Aman from pafnutyblog has managed to extract the wikipedia entry revision history and put a bigger list of malapropisms in one place here: http://pafnuty.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/the-lost-malapropisms-on-wikipedia/.